Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Map, A Red Marker, and a Sobering Statistic - Highways 63 and 881

The map shown above has turned up several times in my email inbox in the last few days. It seems to be circulating widely, and it is attracting a lot of interest. It isn't hard to see why, really, given the accident just one month ago on Highway 63 - an accident that I believe may have changed a great deal both within, and outside, our community.

It's a simple map, really, just showing two roadways. Both of these highways, the 881 and the 63, serve our northern community. And, as you can tell by the map, both are dotted with little crosses - and, to be quite blunt, stained with the blood of our residents. Those little crosses aren't some sort of marker on a map, people. They are each and every one a life cut short, a story ended before it's natural time, a family left devastated, friends left grieving, and a community in pain. Each and every cross is, as I have written before, an arrow to my heart.

It hurts to think about the people those crosses represent. It pains me to even consider how brutally their lives ended, and how unnecessary it is. We all know by now that true accidents are very, very rare. Most "accidents" are preventable. Some of this prevention must come from twinning the 63 as quickly as possible. Some must come from increased police presence. And some must come from us, changing our attitudes and our habits, and learning to drive in ways that do not endanger ourselves and others. There is no singular simple solution. It is all those things that will see fewer of those red crosses appear on this map.

I've printed a copy of this map and put it up in my office. I've done this to remind myself of why we must continue to work to see Highway 63 receive the attention it deserves - twinning, and police presence. I've done this in the hope that I will not need to use a red marker to draw in any new crosses and dates. I've done this knowing I likely will, as statistically speaking we have seen a death on the 63 almost every month in the last 60 months (46 deaths in five years, so on average a death every 1.3 months). The last accident was a month ago. It doesn't take a genius to do the math to know that we will likely see another one in the near future if the statistics are any indication.

I want to thank every person who sent this map to me. I want to tell them that while they might think that I am doing something to ensure the safety of our community on Highway 63 they are doing so, too. The simple act of taking this map and sending it on, of making sure others see it, is doing something to work towards safety. It is raising awareness of the deaths on Highway 63. It is an action in a situation that has too long seen inaction. Each and every one of us can take an action. We can email our Premier, our MLAs and our Transportation Minister to request that they too take action on Highway 63. We can think about our own driving habits, and we can engage others in conversations about theirs. We can report those who are driving aggressively and endangering others. Each and every one of us has in our hands the ability to act - and, I think, in the past month, we have.

I have been intrigued to see that this story, even a month later, has not died down. Just last week the Calgary Herald was still running stories about the 63, and about the tragedies that have been played out on it. Even a month later the media attention is there, and that is a remarkable thing in an era where the media attention span is usually very brief. I think that speaks to something, really. I think it speaks to an acknowledgement of the importance of this region, and I think it speaks to the fact that this Highway touches the lives of people throughout our country. I still get emails almost every day from across the country, people telling me of family and friends who travel on Highway 63, and the worry felt for their safety.

This issue isn't going away, people. By June 29th newly elected MLA and recently appointed special advisor Mike Allen will present his recommendations to Transportation Minister Ric McIver, who will then take those recommendations to Premier Alison Redford. This might seem like it is taking forever but in terms of government and bureaucracy, which is typically tortoise-slow, this is practically occurring at light speed. And some of this is no doubt due to the continuing media attention - and the attention of the people in this region who are watching, and waiting, for action from the provincial government. Just as we have the power to act we know they too have the power to act, and we watch and wait for them to do so.

As I write this I am sitting and staring at the printed copy of this map on my wall. I look at the crosses and I wonder about each and every story. Some of the stories I know, and some I have heard. Some I have not heard, and some may never be told. But each and every story is one that ended on a highway in northern Alberta, and each and every one is a life ended far too soon and far too tragically. I don't want to see any more stories end this way, people. I don't want to see any more roadside memorials, and I don't want to see the red marker I have placed on my desk used to add any more crosses to this map. I look at the calendar and think about that statistic, every 1.3 months. And I stare at that damn red marker for another minute, desperately wishing I could toss it into the garbage can - but knowing, sadly, that I will likely be using it far too soon.

For all those who have asked what they can do
to keep this issue in the spotlight, all I can say is this -
do not forget. 

Keep talking about it,
keep emailing those in provincial government,
keep thinking about your driving habits,
keep reporting those who drive in dangerous ways -
and keep the faith, because I believe in 
the power of the people of this region to do anything -
including not adding any new crosses to a map.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Hope in the Dark- A New Personal Perspective on Being Homeless

There are posts that take me some time to write. They usually involve experiences that are so profound or troubling that they take me time to process, to roll them around in my head until I have managed to sort them out enough to express my thoughts. This is one of those posts, and one of those experiences. I have never been homeless, people. I have never experienced any level of homelessness, sleeping rough on the ground or sleeping in a tent or a car. When I have done those things - slept in a tent, or in a car - I did so by choice, not by default. It was called "camping", or "getting some rest during a long drive".  But this past weekend I slept on a park bench, again by choice, but in order to gain a better understanding of the true nature of homelessness. It was at an event organized by The Centre of Hope, a place that has become so important to me, and it was called "Hope in the Dark". The idea was to allow people to experience homelessness, to get just a tiny taste of what it feels like - and to raise awareness. What I found was an experience that was not only profound and troubling but also enlightening. It explained so very much, answered some questions, and it humbled me.

On Saturday at 6 pm I arrived at the parking lot behind the Clearwater Public Education Centre. There were a small number of participants registered, and we were all going to be "sleeping rough". Just as there are different ways to be homeless so would the participants experience it in different ways - some sleeping in their cars, some in tents, some in boxes, and some, like me and my friends, in the open air, protected only by sleeping bags - and each other.

The evening began with bottle picking, and a warning. The bottle picking was so that we could eat. Just as homeless individuals often have to do we had to collect bottles to earn our food, and two bottles would get us one burger. I paired up with my good buddy Blake, and out we went into the field. Blake found his two bottles quickly, but he helped me find mine. He spotted the one on top of the goalpost, a place where at 5'3" I could have never reached it, but he is very tall and was easily able to collect it for me. And that was my first inkling of how valuable it would be to work as a "team" on the street, to be able to help each other. That point was driven home repeatedly during the night, the need to find community on the street and work together.

Blake and I also found a roll of toilet paper, a precious commodity when sleeping on the street. And once we received the warning - that personal belongings left unattended could be "stolen" - we guarded that paper with our lives, more precious to us than the one ring that unites them all. In fact we guarded all our things carefully, although at one point the organizers stole Blake's blanket and he had to sing to get it back. And there was the reality again, people. I have spoken to many homeless individuals who have had items stolen from them, clothing and shoes and blankets. For you and I this would be upsetting and angering and annoying - but for someone homeless these items are crucial. The loss is devastating.

We had supper and there were some speeches and then we headed down the hill and into the park to set up our spots. Those who had raised enough money to sleep in a tent pitched them, and those who chose to sleep in boxes set up their spots. Even though several in my group had raised enough money to sleep in a tent or a car we chose instead to sleep on the ground - and I picked a park bench, because I have never slept on a bench. I have often seen people, though, curled up on park benches, and I wanted to experience that. I wanted that to be my experience of homelessness.

It was a beautiful early summer evening in Fort Mac, people. The field in front of us filled up with some of our culturally diverse community gathering to play soccer, and we enjoyed some amazing footwork. We chatted briefly with some of the players, and we entertained each other. We had a visit from Mike Allen and Don Scott, our new MLAs, and from Melissa Blake, our lovely mayor. Councillor Russell Thomas dropped by, and councillor Phil Meagher stayed overnight with his son. And then it was time to set up for the night.

We took cardboard boxes and laid the on the ground to ward off the chill. We unrolled sleeping bags and we put on warm sweaters and socks. Towards midnight we had more visitors - a friend well known in the community brought coffee and donuts (and had earlier that evening made me snort with laughter, my hooting echoing through the valley, no doubt), and we had another delivery of coffee from Tim's. And then the visitors left, and we were alone.

I went up the hill for a bit to brush my teeth (yes, we had a bathroom facility, another luxury not often available to the truly homeless), and when I came back down I did a head count of the huddled up sleeping bags. I knew how many were in my group, my little "homeless" group of Michelle and Matt and Blake and Michael and Ken and Christina. When I counted, though, I realized there was an extra person - and I had no idea who it was. I crawled into my sleeping bag and stared at that extra bag, wondering who it was. I suppose I was freaked out because it was very late, and very dark. When I had known everyone that was around me it was okay, but seeing someone in a bag and not knowing who they were disturbed me. I ended up staring at that bag for an hour, fretting about it, texting a friend and saying that it was worrying me, that it could be anyone.

My friend Blake and I tweeted back and forth, making each other laugh. I huddled deep down in my bag, fighting to find "comfortable" and failing, the cold metal park bench impossible to adjust to. I spent hours on Twitter and texting, taking small jabs for being "homeless" and having a smartphone (and yes, people, I acknowledge there was some lack of authenticity). I could not sleep. And then the bats arrived.

Blake looked at me and said "do you hear the bats?". Bats? No one warned me about bats, but there they were, swooping through the night sky, eating the bugs. I was slightly terrified, not because I am afraid of bats but I suppose because it was so unexpected. And then tragedy struck. I had finally gotten comfortable - and I had to go to the washroom.

The thought of leaving my warm sleeping bag was horrible. I had finally managed to get warm, and now I needed to pee. It meant unzipping my bag and putting on my boots and navigating across the dark field. It meant coming back and trying to get warm again and trying to get comfortable.

It took an hour to convince myself to leave my bag, and the texts from a friend who told me to go. I put on my boots, not even bothering to zip them up, grabbed my almost dead cell and the charger, and traipsed up the hill. I used the bathroom and then I sat and plugged in my phone. My excuse was that I needed it charged to keep tweeting and texting, but that was truly an excuse. It was simply a reason to stay indoors, to not go back out there where there were bats and where I was wearing socks on my hands to keep them warm (gloves, I forgot gloves!).

A couple of people came in and found me there, huddled on the floor. We chatted briefly, and I could see their experience, whether in cars or tents, wasn't going much better than my own. As I sat there I suddenly understood why the homeless congregate in the lobbies of apartment buildings or outside ATM's. Because it is warm. Because there are no bats. Because it is relatively safe. And because being outside not only sucks the warmth out of you over time it sucks your soul out, too.

I got a tweet from Blake then, telling me a fox had come to visit our little site, digging at one friend's tarp and staring Blake in the eyes. I headed down the hill then, hoping to see our nocturnal visitor, but he was gone. I climbed back into my bag, huddled far down inside until none of me could be seen, and began texting and tweeting again to anyone who would answer (and several who didn't, too, comfortable and warm in their own beds, I suspect). I was worried about the bats and the fox - visions of rabies shots danced in my head. I was still worried about that extra sleeping bag. I was still cold. And finally, at about 3:30, I fell asleep. And at 3:45 the birds woke up, and began chirping, and sleep became even more difficult.

I woke again at 4:00, and peeked out a bit. The scene was quiet, and there was dew on top of everyone. I looked around and then huddled back in my bag again, to sleep for another hour or so. And then it was 6:00 and time for some oatmeal. We headed up the hill, my little group and I, and we had breakfast together, talking about the bats and the fox. We talked to those who had stayed in tents (or, as those of us on benches and the ground dubbed it "Club Med"), and those who had slept in boxes. And then my friends left and I headed down the hill to pack up my things, alone.

I will be honest. I was in tears as I packed. I was exhausted, my entire body hurt, and I was still cold. I had learned that you never drink coffee late at night when you might have to climb out of a warm sleeping bag in the cold at 3 am and find someplace to use the bathroom. I learned that without friends existence on the streets would be a struggle, because without Blake I would have never reached that bottle and would have had to keep looking. I learned that the connection with friends was what keeps you going, that you watch out for each other and their things, and that they become your lifeline, as Blake and the rest of the group became mine. And suddenly I understood the community I have found in the homeless in this city, and I realized that when they told me they found their family on the streets they meant it. After that night on a park bench I had such respect and affection for everyone in my little group. I could see that it wouldn't take long for them to become my family if we were truly homeless, that we would forge a strong bond and find our own little community with each other.

I packed up my gear, headed up the hill, said my goodbyes, got into my car and drove....home. I crawled into my warm bed, and slept for hours. Because I was home. Because I had one. Because I had that option. And as I fell asleep I was heartbroken for all those who had also spent that night on the streets in our community - and who would do so again the next night, and the night after that, and the one after that. One night almost broke me. The thought of doing it again? Unfathomable.

Sunday night I had another commitment but I broke it. Instead I went down to the Centre of Hope, and participated in the candle light vigil for the 32 homeless individuals who have died in our community since 2005. We lit candles, and a pastor said some words, words that resonated with me, about how the homeless have a community and family, and about how we have so many more questions than answers. And then the names were read, 32 names, each with a story and each with an ending on the streets of Fort McMurray. I managed to choked back tears until I reached my car, and then they flooded me. I thought of 32 souls who experienced what I had the night before, but for real, and who died living it. I thought of all those in our city still doing it, and about how they are often kicked out of lobbies and back out into the cold, and about how devastated I would have been that night if I had been kicked out of the warm spot I found. I looked at those little candles, and when they were snuffed out by those attending the symbolism almost overwhelmed me. 32 lives on the street, snuffed out. 32 stories ended. And so many more still on our streets.

People sometimes ask me why homelessness is so close to me, since I've never been homeless. And I can't really answer, except to say that after having experienced just a taste of it, lacking in authenticity as it was, it made me not just aware but humbled. I saw how this existence could break even a strong person, and how quickly a fragile one, made fragile by mental illness or addiction, could spiral into an uncontrollable downward path. I had played at being homeless for a night, but so many others aren't playing. They are living it. And the funny thing is I not only had new understanding for them but new respect, too. Because they are far, far tougher than I ever will be. Because they have far more courage than I ever will. And because I think they understand the value of friends and community perhaps even far more than I do. I was tired and sore and humbled in absolutely every way, people. I went to my park bench that night and woke up seeing the world with new eyes - and I doubt I will ever see it the same way again. I was homeless for a night - and, perhaps, changed forever.

My deep and sincere thanks to
The Centre of Hope
for organizing
"Hope in the Dark"
but more importantly for the work
 they do every day in our community.

My gratitude to my "homeless" friends
Blake, Michelle, Matt, Michael, Ken, and Christina,
 who got me through the night.
Truly, I got by with a little help from my friends!

My thanks to those who replied to my
tweets and texts through the night -
staying connected with you was my lifeline.

To those who are homeless on our streets -
your strength amazes me.

And to the 32 people who are now gone, 
and who died on our streets - you are gone,
but you are not forgotten. 
Your community remembers you.
Fort McMurray remembers you.
And I remember you, all of you...

Robert K
Roger W

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Special Advisor, A Date, and The Rubber Hitting the Road - Highway 63

June 29. It's a Friday, about 6 weeks from today. It's an important day for a few reasons, really. It's the first day of summer freedom for students in the local schools, the last day of school being the day before. It's the first day of the Canada Rocks Music Festival at MacDonald Island Park, a 3-day event that has become the sign that the summer season in Fort Mac has begun. This year, though, the 29th of June has taken on new significance. It's the date that MLA Mike Allen, newly appointed Special Advisor on Highway 63, is due to submit his recommendations to Ric McIver, new Minister of Transportation for the provincial government - recommendations meant to determine what happens to Highway 63, the highway that has become a focal point for this region in the past month.

I don't know if I've ever seen an issue quite like this in Fort McMurray. The concern over Highway 63, particularly after the horrific last accident, has cut across every demographic in the city. Age. Culture. Economic status. And as I learned personally the concern went far, far beyond our city borders. When I wrote my open letter to our Premier I heard from people across the country. It took me two days to answer all the emails - and I still get them on occasion, even almost a month later. That accident unleashed sorrow and anger and pain and grief. It launched a movement, one that coalesced into a protest rally with an astonishing attendance given it's lack of precedence in this community. I think it opened a dialogue on the 63 that was desperately needed, one that was long overdue, a dialogue about responsibility and safe driving and police presence - and progress.

It is the lack of progress on twinning the highway that I think has been driving people crazy. It has been the sense that nothing has been done, that there has been a lot of talk and little action. For me it has been the lack of accountability - the lack of a timeline for completion, and of a open, transparent, and well communicated plan of action. That troubled me so deeply, here in a region where industry works on timelines, where accountability is inextricably linked to completion dates. And yet here was our highway, our lifeline to the world, being twinned but at an inexplicably slow pace, and without any sort of timeline or completion date in sight. And people, yesterday, at the RMWB building just outside of council chambers, the vision on that got a bit clearer. Yesterday, right here in Fort Mac, the rubber began to hit the road.

Premier Alison Redford came to the community yesterday. I was actually a bit nervous to see her again, imagining she might be less than fond of a presumptuous blogger who wrote an open letter viewed by thousands of people, an open letter essentially challenging her to action. When I was sitting in my local coffee shop - a place I refer to as "my office" as I don't actually have one of those and choose instead to work in a loud little coffee shop where I can observe my city - in walked a security person - and the Premier. I spoke to her briefly, and it was clear she knew exactly who I was - and I should not have been concerned as she was her usual gracious self, the person I had interviewed at the start of the recent election campaign.

The Premier didn't come for coffee, though. She came to make an announcement with Mayor Melissa Blake, and with newly elected MLA Mike Allen. And the announcement is, in my opinion, a promising one, not just because of what she announced but the language in the accompanying press release. You see, she announced that she had appointed Mike Allen as a special advisor on Highway 63, tasked with devising a set of recommendations regarding changes needed to make our highway safer. And those recommendations will be delivered to Ric McIver, who will then deliver them to her.

There are those who will cry this isn't enough, and that they should simply start laying down pavement already. The thing is that pavement is being laid down as I write, but we need to find ways to both expedite that and to come up with other solutions in the meantime - because twinning won't happen over night. We need to ensure that we improve safety while the twinning is in progress. We need to do this the right way, with a long term plan in place (twinning) and a short term plan in action (increased police presence, for instance). And that is what Mike Allen, special advisor, has been asked to do. He has been asked to consult with community stakeholders and devise those plans and actions. And as a local person with a long history in the community, and one who has driven that highway on a regular basis, he is the ideal person to do exactly that.

When I read the press release yesterday one sentence leapt out at me. It is the one I keep going back to, because it is, in my mind, the one with the most meaning in all that transpired yesterday. It is this: "actions will include a timeline for completing the twinning of Highway 63".

Timeline. Completion. Accountability. It is exactly what I wanted to see. It is a hopeful sign, an initial step in the right direction towards a transparent, open, clearly communicated accountable plan of action. And it is to be devised by our own MLA, one who understands the community, the issue, and can make recommendations that will serve the needs of his constituents.

We have a special advisor on Highway 63 now. The real work, the true work, lies ahead of him now. I have faith he can get it done, and present a series of recommendations to the government that will serve us well. We have a plan to get those recommendations, and we have a date - June 29th. The rubber has hit the road in Fort McMurray, people. The wheels are in motion. As a region we watch, and we wait. And I think what we have done, what I am proudest of, because of people like Nicole Auser and Ashley St. Croix, Twin 63 Now organizers, and because of concerned citizens in the community, is we have put the government on notice that we will not forget. We will not go away. We will be looking for results, and we have some expectations. We have a special advisor, we have a date, and we have rubber on the road. Now we look to see it gain some traction - and find some twinned pavement.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Homelessness Awareness Week

Well, people, this weekend I am going "camping". Okay, it's not really camping. It is sleeping outdoors, though, but in a parking lot, not in a campground. And while it will be outdoors it isn't really meant to be like camping. It's meant to be like being homeless - because it's the Centre of Hope's Hope in the Dark homelessness awareness event, and I will be there under the stars experiencing just a tiny, tiny taste of some of what the homeless in our community experience.

May 21-27 is Homelessness Awareness Week in Fort McMurray. This week is designed to shine a light on an issue in our community that is easy to forget, and even easier to ignore. But it exists, and it happens, and it is reality. I don't think forgetting or ignoring such realities makes them go away - it simply lets us live our lives and not be troubled by them. The thing is, though, that we should be troubled - because in the midst of affluence and plenty we have people who are sleeping rough on our streets.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the homeless - that they are all addicts, or that they have chosen to be there. People often don't realize the myriad reasons one can become homeless - mental illness, for instance, or even a career-ending injury. It's far easier to say it's a choice or a result of bad choices than to recognize that it can truly happen to just about anyone given the right set of circumstances, ones often beyond your control. I was stunned to discover some of our local homeless population had once been well-employed, but after an injury were unable to continue working. I was not stunned to discover some battle mental illness, as I always knew that part, but I was saddened to see that it continues to be a reason for homelessness, their illness simply being desperately compounded by life on the streets.

I have learned so much over the past year as I have spent time with the homeless in our community. There are individuals within it I would call my friends, and I have, I admit, invested in them emotionally. I have begun to care about them as people, and to have this deep desire to see them find happiness, and joy - and homes. I have found myself looking for them as I travel around the community, keeping an eye out for them and hoping they are okay. I have found myself wondering about the ones I don't see any more, hoping they have simply moved on to another city and not on to darker times. I have found myself thinking about them, often late at night when I cannot sleep, wrapped in a warm blanket. I think about them, and wonder where they are that night. I have thought of them at Christmas. I have thought of them as I put my daughter to bed, thinking about how each and every one of them was once an innocent child, too, no matter where and how they ended up.

I have never been homeless. There was a time in my life, decades ago, when I think I skirted that edge, when an injury or a mental illness could have easily put me on the streets of Toronto. There were times when my parents bailed me out financially, and where I might well have ended up without an apartment without that assistance. At the time it never even occurred to me that that could have happened, but now I find it a sobering thought. I think about how close to that edge I danced, and it has given me new understanding.

This Saturday night I will have a new experience. I will camp outdoors, but it isn't really camping. I will sleep in a local parking lot, wrapped in a sleeping bag. I don't like the dark, or the cold, or bugs. Someone has mentioned bears, and I am not very fond of those, either. I will likely spend the night wide awake, tweeting and texting and a wee bit fearful. I will likely be unsettled by the experience - and yet I know I will be safe, as I will have friends around me. I know that I will go home in the morning to my warm bed and my loving family. I will not truly be homeless, I will just be playing a role that night. And that is perhaps the most heart breaking part to me. I will be playing at being homeless while every night in this community there are those who are not playing it, but living it, warm nights and freezing nights, in the rain and under a clear sky. I will be going home Sunday morning while they spend another day on our streets - and another night. And even after a night of "homelessness", even after I have gained some awareness - I am sure I will have absolutely no idea what that truly feels like. I will have simply played a role and had a restless night in a parking lot. I suspect that night, though, I will spend a lot of time thinking about how a twist of fate in my life could have left me living the real thing - and about how others that I care about in this community are doing just that. And I think that maybe, just maybe, that is what awareness is.

You can still register for the event
and join me for the night -
or you can pledge money towards the cause
by contacting McMurray Musings :)

Monday, May 21, 2012

May Long Mayhem - Roller Derby On Fire In Fort McMurray

Without a doubt the poster caught my attention. An actual roller derby bout, right here in Fort Mac? I was intrigued. Actually, I've been intrigued by roller derby since I wrote about The Tar Sand Betties some time ago, long before they had planned a local bout. So, when I saw the poster I knew what the Intrepid Junior Bloggers and I would spend Saturday night of May long weekend doing - which is how we found ourselves at the Casman Centre looking for parking for the very first roller derby bout in Fort Mac, with the Tar Sand Betties hosting the Lakeland LadyKillers.

While the poster said the doors opened at six I figured we had time to stop at Starbucks for some coffee, which is why we arrived closer to 6:30 - and couldn't find a parking spot. I was actually a bit boggled by that, as I had been worrying that the roller derby bout would not attract a good crowd, but as soon as I pulled into the parking lot I realized the level of my miscalculation. I finally found a spot, and we headed inside, the Intrepid Junior Bloggers, myself, and one of my best friends who happens to come from England, a place with no history of roller derby. When I had invited him to join us he had at first declined, but we convinced him in the end, and so he experienced his first taste of roller derby.

Photo credit to Mark O'Henly

It turns out about 1100 people attended the bout, which in this community is an astonishingly good turnout for a new event. I think the Betties have infected a lot of people with their enthusiasm, though (I know they did it to me) and so the crowd was quite huge, varied in age and gender. I was completely delighted, to be honest, to see so many people turning out for a new event.

I have been asked what I like about roller derby, and I suppose the answer is "almost everything". The action, the drama, the flair, the costumes, the personalities, the nicknames - but maybe most of all the women, competitive and yet with an air of camaraderie, tough on the rink knocking each other about but then stopping to help each other up when the whistle blows. I guess it's because it appeals to me as a woman, to see other women expressing that competitive spirit in a very tough way but also showing their ability to work as a team - and to even extend that to the other team, to see them as both competitors and friends. There is something very much about the female spirit in all that, and to see it so clearly visible just makes me happy. And besides, there is the knocking each other about, which is entertaining, too!

Photo credit to Mark O'Henly

I'll admit it. I love roller derby, and the older Intrepid Junior Blogger was so interested that she has now expressed interest in participating in the sport. The younger Intrepid Junior Blogger was not quite as keen, and my British friend? Well, he was simply deeply puzzled by the entire thing. One of my favourite moments was when a young man seated in the crowd next to us tried to explain it to my friend, and my friend, a very bright man with a PhD, was nodding but I could clearly see he still didn't have a clue. Watching his face was pretty priceless, and I could see he was trying to come up with a way to describe roller derby to his mother back in England.

Photo credit to Mark O'Henly

The bout itself? It was pretty terrific, especially towards the end when the Lakeland LadyKillers edged out our own Betties, winning the bout with a score of 129-125. The last few moments were pretty ferocious, lots of tumbling and whizzing around the track, lots of fast moves and action. And the funny thing is even though the Betties lost I think they won. I think they won in that this determined group of women formed a roller derby team, practiced like mad, recruited new members, became part of the community, and carved out a little niche for themselves in it. And then they invited another team to come for a bout and managed to attract 1100 residents to a brand new event which has no precedent in this city. If that isn't a form of "winning" I don't know what is. They might have lost to the Lakeland LadyKillers by 4 points but I think they won huge in the departments known as "personal accomplishment", "community spirit", and "achieving a goal".

Photo credit to Mark O'Henly

Photo credit to Mark O'Henly

The Tar Sand Betties lost their first local roller derby bout Saturday night, people. But they won over a crowd of 1100 people, they won the admiration of young women like my older Intrepid Junior Blogger - and they won my heart all over again, just like they did the very first time I saw them practice. Funny thing is I suspect they won a lot of other hearts, too, a lot of hearts that now carry a little roller derby flame in them and a deep hope to see lots more roller derby bouts in the Fort Mac future.

Photo credit to Mark O'Henly

My sincere thanks to
Mark O'Henly
for sharing his fabulous photos with me,
and to the
TarSand Betties
for being brave enough to bring roller derby to Fort McMurray! :)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Canada Really, Really Rocks - Canada Day Weekend, Fort McMurray Style

I'll be very honest here. I'm still a little bit bitter about last summer, because I was there for the press conference announcing KISS at the Canada Rocks Festival. I wrote about it several times, in fact - but the kicker was that I couldn't attend the concert because we had already booked our family summer vacation - and we left the day before KISS played. I'm not even that big a KISS fan, truth be told, but I hate to miss anything that might be fun, so while I loved my holiday with my family part of me was quite sad to be missing KISS. So, this year I engaged in some strategic planning and ensured I would be in the city for every festival over the summer - and the first, of course, is the  Nexen Canada Rocks Festival, from Events Wood Buffalo.

I attended the press conference for this one, too, just to hear David Whitelock, EWB's Executive Director, list the bands in his Scottish brogue. I knew it wouldn't be a "KISS announcement", as concerts of that magnitude really can't be accomplished every year. I was delighted instead to see a focus on Canadian artists - as exciting as KISS was I think for Canada Day the perfect acts are ones that are truly Canadian, and the line-up this year is very, very exciting.

First up on June 29th we have Joel Plaskett and Hey Rosetta. Now, this one is exciting for a lot of reasons. Joel is pretty awesome, and Hey Rosetta is pretty great. And the best part? This one is free. That's right, General Admission is free to this opening night concert, and I can't imagine a better way to kick off the weekend. Joel is originally from Nova Scotia, and Hey Rosetta are from Newfoundland. Two great Canadian acts, and one great way to start what is sure to be a terrific weekend.

Then, next up, we have two more great Canadian acts - and one with one hell of an interesting life story. On June 30th Classified takes the stage, opening for Somali Canadian K'Naan. Classified is a rapper from the East Coast, and has become fairly well known in recent years. And K'Naan? Well, like I said, what a story. Born in Somalia, growing up in Mogadishu - I can't even quite imagine what this man has seen in his years on this planet. And now he is in Canada, making music and achieving notice and fame. I was delighted when I heard he was going to be playing Canada Rocks, as not only is he an amazing musician I suspect he's also an amazing person.

And, then finally, July 1st. I was delighted to hear that on Canada Day 2012 Fort McMurray will host opening acts Doc Walker, and Corb Lund - and then Blue Rodeo. Look, people, I'm not sure it gets more "Canadian iconic" than Blue Rodeo. This is the band that might have had a country sound but brought it right into the pop mainstream, a band that was getting huge when I was in Toronto many years ago. Suddenly a city that would have frowned upon cowboy boots and huge belt buckles was embracing them, every hip Queen Street West establishment jumping on the "blue rodeo cowboy" bandwagon. And then it went country-wide, Blue Rodeo's style and music finding fans across the nation from rural communities to the largest cities. I'm pleased to report I witnessed it all back then, watched it spread and watched their fame grow. I think most Canadians have a "Blue Rodeo" memory, a certain song linked to a certain memory or time in their life. For me it is the song "Lost Together", which takes me back to a certain time in my life, a time when the idea of being lost wasn't so awful as long as I wasn't lost alone. I can't even begin to express my pleasure at the chance to see them perform live again, and in the company of two other great Canadian acts.

So, there is is, Fort Mac. I might have missed KISS and the last Canada Rocks Festival but I won't be missing this one. In fact I am planning to volunteer for all three days of the event, as I love nothing more than to be right in there and see it all come together. There is something magical about these events, something spectacular about seeing them from the inside (and you can, too, as Events Wood Buffalo is looking for volunteers!). But even if you don't volunteer for them there is something incredible about simply being there, about being in the audience on that first weekend in July when our northern summer seems to truly begin. There is something about Canada Day and the Canadian flag and Canadian musicians and fireworks and the company of friends. There is something about being on the field at MacDonald Island Park, gazing up at the stars, and hearing live music. KISS might have been great, people, and it might have been a once-in-a-lifetime kind of event - but to be honest while I am sorry I missed it I am more than happy to know I will be here for Canada Day weekend this year. I know where I will spend the first three glorious days of our summer - and I hope to see you there, listening to some Canadian artists, waving a Canadian flag, and celebrating Canada Day right here in Fort McMurray.

You can find information on the line-up for
Nexen Canada Rocks here,

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mango Stilton, Lunch Tweetups, and the Fox Den Lounge

My fondness for MacDonald Island Park isn't really a secret in this community. I have always been fond of it, even when it was truly just a recreation centre. Under the leadership of COO Tim Reid, though, and his MI Team, Mac Island has truly become the heart of this community. It's where I go to the gym. It's where I take the Intrepid Junior Bloggers to the library, and to swim. It's where I attend so many events, and it's where I eat the food that leads me right back to the gym (that's a vicious cycle, that one, sticky toffee pudding consumed and hitting the gym to atone the day after).

What I think is truly great about Mac Island, though, are all the people who work there. A couple of weeks ago the Director of Hospitality, Naved Noorani, invited me for lunch at the newly renovated Fox Den Lounge. Now, the Fox Den is the restaurant located right on the golf course, and as such you might think it's a typical golf course club house - but in reality it is much more.

I suppose I forget from time to time what a lovely spot it is at Mac Island. Surrounded by trees, the verdant forest right there beside you. I've often seen fox and deer, and even bear, around the island. And the best part is that the Fox Den is located right on that forested edge, and as a result has, hands down, the best patio in town. Instead of dust from Highway 63 (like some local patios) you get fresh air coming from the forest. And the wildlife you are likely to see is of the four-legged variety, not the two-legged kind, which is a bonus, too.

When Naved invited me for lunch, to check out the new decor and to try the new menu, I was delighted. I like many things, including lunch, and even better lunch with friends. The restaurant had just opened for the season so I was thrilled to get a chance to be in on the debut of the menu - and I was not disappointed.

There was a time, before Naved took over and before new chefs were hired, that the food at Mac Island was lacklustre. It just wasn't as good as it could be, and that was disappointing to me. With the arrival of the new executive chef Jaimeet Kathuria the food began to get better - much, much better, including that sticky toffee pudding that is both one of my greatest food joys and the bane of my waistline. So when Naved said the Fox Den had a new menu and a new chef I was delighted to give it a try.

Sous-chef Tanner Morgan, Jaimeet, and Naved put their heads together when planning the new menu for the Fox Den, keeping the original dishes that were popular but adding some new ones as well. On the day Naved and I had lunch we had the sweet potato fries, and regular fries, served in little metal baskets (and good beyond what simple fries should be!). Then we moved on, me to the Chinatown Lettuce Wraps. Now, these are a bit tricky to eat, as you must wrap them yourself, but they are worth every bit of the trouble. Tender seasoned beef or chicken, crisp noodles, and a wrapping of lettuce makes them into a crunchy, savoury treat. While they are on the appetizer menu an order is more than enough for lunch, or perfect for two to share as a snack.

While we ate and chatted both Tanner and Jaimeet came over to chat as well, talking about their vision for the food at the lounge. Jaimeet had me try the cheese they use on one of their salads - a mango Stilton that is pretty much one of the best cheeses I've ever tasted (and I am a cheese junkie, particularly of those flavourful varieties like blue cheeses). I only managed to eat about half my wraps when Naved insisted I try the dessert, a banana cheesecake Xango (apparently code word for deep fried deliciousness). By the time I finished that (and okay, while I didn't finish the wraps I pretty much licked my dessert plate clean, sigh) I knew I was going to spend a few hours in the gym repenting my wayward but delicious ways.

And it wasn't just the food that was great, either. It was the company of Naved and his staff, friendly and attentive, talking about the lounge and Mac Island but about our community, too. It was just a day after the provincial election and I was still reeling a bit from the month of campaigning so to just sit and eat with friends, to chat and relax, was beyond lovely. I mentioned to Naved that I was planning a lunch time "tweetup", which is just a gathering of people who use Twitter (you spread the word about it through Twitter, and it really is just an opportunity to meet new people). And then Naved made the most astounding offer. He asked if I would consider holding it at the Fox Den Lounge - and they would host it, providing free lunch for twenty people.

I was actually astonished. I've never had anyone make that kind of offer, so I accepted immediately, knowing it would likely be the most successful lunch tweetup ever - and it was. On May 3rd about 25 people gathered at the Fox Den Lounge for lunch, including two former Fort Mac residents who are now attending school in Edmonton. It was a chance to meet new people, spend time with friends, and enjoy some great food. Not only did Naved and his staff host us they treated the group royally, and in the end not a single person paid for their food. It was an amazing act of generosity, and while they got to introduce the food and new decor to new patrons I got to plan a terrific lunch event where I was delighted to see members of our community enjoy each other's company. It was, quite frankly, my favourite kind of event in this community.

So, the Fox Den Lounge, MacDonald Island Park, Naved, his staff, Tim Reid and the rest of the MI Team? Well, they've got my heart, no doubt. They have treated me with kindness and generosity at every turn, and have welcomed me into their little MI family. They also have my stomach, as just writing this I am finding it growling at the very thought of some mango stilton cheese and some cheesecake Xango. And in the end the fitness centre at Mac Island pretty much owns my body, a body pumped full of sticky toffee pudding and stilton cheese and cheesecake. In fact as I finish this post I realize it is lunch time, and I haven't made any lunch plans. And I went to the gym this morning, so I am feeling quite virtuous. That can only mean one thing, people....

Fox Den Lounge, here I come. Save me a table, would you?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Smart 63 - and Arrows to the Heart

This past weekend I headed out of town for some R&R (and to support the Albertan economy with some good ol'fashioned retail therapy). On Thursday afternoon at about 1 pm I packed up the family and we hit the road - our first trip on Highway 63 since the horrific accident just over two weeks ago.

I'm going to admit a few things here. I don't enjoy being on that highway, and I refuse to drive it alone. I'm quite a good driver - cautious, attentive, careful. But I find the industrial loads intimidating. I find the speeds some travel frightening. And while I love the scenery along that highway driving it frightens me a bit, makes me feel insecure and out of control (and very, very few things do that to me, people).

When we got on the 63 on Thursday I hoped to see some changes. And I did see some changes - but what I saw wasn't good enough, people. What I saw troubles me because it seems despite seven recent deaths and an outpouring of grief and a protest rally and national media coverage we still aren't quite getting it.

Here's the deal, people, the very short story : We need to smarten the hell up before we kill ourselves - or other people.

I know that you don't think death will come for you when you are zooming along doing 140 clicks. I know you don't think you'll meet an oncoming car when you go to pass three vehicles at once. I know you don't think death stalks those who travel and pass in a "pack manner". And I know something else, too. Nobody expects to die in a tragic accident. Nobody plans for it, and nobody thinks it will happen to them. But I guarantee this - if we continue to drive in the ways I witnessed we may as well start planning more funerals.

Yes, the highway needs to be twinned, and desperately. The process needs to be expedited and we need to keep the pressure up to ensure it happens. To that end I'm sending an email inviting the new Alberta Minister of Transportation to come visit us - and drive the 63 - so I'll include his email address at the end of this post if you'd like to send him an invitation, too. But twinning will not solve all the problems, and I never thought it would. It will end head-on collisions but until it's twinned - and after! - we need to talk about the concept of "Smart 63".

I credit local Mix 103.7 radio host Steve Reeve with coining the #smart63 Twitter hashtag, and being the first to use it after the accident two weeks ago. You see, without being smarter on the 63 the "Twin 63" movement will mean nothing. We will continue to see carnage unless we talk about driving behaviour.

What did I witness on Thursday? Excessive speeds. Passing on double solids. Passing uphill. Passing several vehicles at once. The same kinds
 of risky behaviour I have seen before. The same kind of risky behaviour we have all seen before. The same kind of risky behaviour that can end in tragedy.

On the plus side I also saw a hugely increased police presence - no less than eight cruisers, and one radar trap. There is no doubt this beefed-up police presence will help, but they cannot be everywhere at once - so we have some responsibilities, too. And I see them like this:

1) Company vehicles driving at excess speeds or in an aggressive manner - report, report, report. To the police - AND the company. Emails were flying fast and furious to some companies today as I reported their drivers. Some I grabbed license plate numbers, some I got identifying vehicle numbers, and some I got nothing but a time and their approximate location on the 63. The companies know who is on the road, so I report and let them sort it out. And never once have I had a company respond poorly or with disinterest. They don't want their employees killed, and they sure as hell don't want their employees killing anyone else, for so many reasons, including lawsuits. I guarantee this - if someone in a company-owned vehicle is at fault and kills my family member I will sue them. Money won't bring a loved one back but I will be speaking in a language businesses understand: money. So, you see a company vehicle driving like a jackass? Report it. And don't even think twice about doing so.

2) Private vehicles being driven aggressively - report to the RCMP. Record the plate number if you can - and then make the call if you are safely able to do so, either pulled over to the side or through a passenger. One thing I learned from an RCMP officer I know is that they rely on the assistance of the public. They aren't going to make you feel bad for calling, and they aren't going to ignore you. If your help means one less next of kin death notification they must perform then they are more than happy for your help. Trust me on this one, people. They don't enjoy delivering that news, and would much rather talk to you than a grief-stricken family member.

3) Look at your odometer. Are YOU speeding? Slow down. Are YOU taking risks that you shouldn't be, passing aggressively, or exhibiting impatient behaviour? Stop it. There are no excuses. Getting there 10 minutes earlier isn't a good enough reason. Nothing is a good enough reason to risk your life - or the lives of others. And if you are with a driver doing these things? Speak up. This is your life at stake, not just theirs. And the lives of others. You have a voice. Use it.

Sunday morning we left Edmonton bright and early, and the traffic was light. It was going very well, in fact, no police presence but very few other vehicles on the road, too. The traffic began to pick up about midway through our drive on the 63, however. And then it happened.

Directly in our lane, coming right at us, a silver van. So close that I took a sharp breath. So close that I could see the face of the driver, a woman. So close that I could feel my tension rise, and so close that anger boiled up in me. And so very, very close that we were forced onto the shoulder. So close to a head-on collision that afterwards I felt quite shaken, especially when I looked into the back seat where the Intrepid Junior Bloggers sat, oblivious to what had just happened.

I didn't catch the license plate, people. It happened so fast, her in our lane, and then darting back into her own as she passed another vehicle. Us, forced onto the shoulder to avoid a collision. But I saw her van, and I saw her face. And I won't forget them. If I happen to be in a parking lot in the future, and see that face stepping out of a silver van, I will be the woman approaching and quietly asking if she was driving on the 63 on Mother's Day. I will ask if she recalls the green car she forced onto the shoulder, and then I will explain that in that car was the most precious of cargo, the children I would fight and kill and die for. I will explain that her actions terrified me. I will explain how I felt when I twice passed a memorial at the side of the road, a spot of burned debris and a wreath that are the only markers for the deaths of seven people. I will explain how no one expects to die on a highway but how actions such as hers are the way it happens. I will control my anger, and I will speak to her in a way that impresses upon her that her choices behind the wheel of her car affect not only her, but me, too - and my children. I will explain to her that only by embracing the concept of Smart 63 will we save lives. Her life, my life, and the lives of our children.

So, there it is, people. We can rant at the government to twin 63, and it needs to be done, no doubt. We can cry for increased police presence, and while it will help it is not the sole solution. We hold a good part of the solution in our own hands every time we put a key in the ignition and head towards the 63. We have the power to control our own driving, and to keep a watchful eye on that of others. We have a responsibility to ourselves, and to each other. We can get the 63 twinned, and of that I have no doubt. I also believe we can create a "Smart 63", an environment in which aggressive driving simply isn't tolerated any longer. We can create a culture where this kind of driving is no longer the norm but rather an anomaly. We can take part of this right into our own hands, and we can control how many more crosses appear on that road, people. Because I will tell you this right now - that spot on the 63, that spot where there is some burned up debris and a wreath? That spot is an arrow to my heart. It hurts to look at it, it hurts to drive by it, and it hurts me to think of any other spots like it appearing on this highway. We need to aim for a Smart 63 - or be ready to take more arrows to our heart.

I encourage all Fort McMurray residents to send
a polite invitation to
I would suggest simply asking him to
come and visit us in Fort McMurray -
and to experience driving on Highway 63 first hand :)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Beauty and the Beast - A Tale as Old as Time, presented by École McTavish

It's been a tough couple of weeks in this community, people. Just under two weeks ago another horrific accident on Highway 63 claimed the lives of seven people, including two children and a pregnant woman. Two survivors lost their entire families, including a very small boy who lost his parents and only sibling. That accident created shock waves that rippled throughout the community, and the effects will be felt for a long time to come, I think. Then, just under a week ago, a wave rippled through the community again, smaller but significant, too, when certain programs, including arts, at Keyano were once again trimmed back. Several very good people saw their jobs disappear, and the community saw the art scene changed - and weakened. The last two weeks have been challenging, and disheartening. Tears have been shed, and anger shown. I know, because I have experienced both, too. There have been moments of incredible pride, like the pride I felt in my community at the Twin 63 protest rally, but it was pride tinged with sorrow and regret that such a rally was necessary at all.

The hardest part of the last couple of weeks has been finding hope. It has been a bit bleak, really, with bad news piling on top of bad, trying to find some faint glimmer of good news in the stack. I found it when I went to see "The Farnsworth Invention" at Keyano - and I found it again, and perhaps even more strongly, when I attended the École McTavish drama production of the musical "Beauty and the Beast".

As a disclaimer I should share that this has always been my favourite fairy tale, long before the Disney version appeared. It is a classic French fairy tale, one retold many times. One of my favourite books from long ago is "Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast" by Robin McKinley, a lovely little book in which the heroine becomes much more human than heroine. I have always loved this tale, this story of a not-so-usual girl who finds a not-so-usual beast. So, when the Intrepid Junior Bloggers insisted we should see this (the youngest having already attended a school matinee performance) it wasn't hard to convince me, and off we went last night.

There are many things I love about school drama performances. I love the energy and the intensity and the excitement. I think most of all, though, I love seeing the pride. These performances take hours of work and practice. Beauty and the Beast incorporates some fairly large musical numbers, and these have to be choreographed well and done to precision so nobody gets bumped off stage and into the audience. And last night I was delighted to see a precision performance, well rehearsed, well acted, and even well sung.

There were some absolute standout performances. Shelby Carleton as Belle was astonishing. As another disclaimer I have known Shelby for years, and what I have seen is a young girl blossoming into a talented, confident young woman. A beautiful voice, a sweet face, and a gift for acting - I look forward to seeing Shelby on other stages in our community soon, such as at Westwood - and I am sure I will see her on the Keyano stage before long, too. Patrick O'Brien as Lumiere was absolutely terrific, pretty much stealing the show whenever he appeared onstage. Lumiere is meant to be a bit of a character, and Patrick plays him very well, "candle" flame hands and head alight. Cogsworth, played by Zeel Patel, also deserves notice, delivering the wry little lines in the deadpan manner the role requires. Momin Syed as the Beast plays the tortured soul well, and Robby Innes as Gaston manages to capture the conceit and arrogance of that character, too. Narrator Courtney Ranger-Efford uses her talents and keeps the story flowing freely. The rest of the cast is equally talented, each one contributing to an overall whole that is pretty much a joyride.

The story moves quickly from start to finish, Belle longing for more than her provincial life and ending up in a castle with a prince who has been locked inside the body of a beast. It's lovely tale, and it's done well by a junior high cast and their teachers, a group that has obviously dedicated so much time to the production. It was a delight to see, and it was a pleasure to see their excitement and enthusiasm. And, in the end, for me, it was also just a bit more.

As I sat in the audience as the performance was winding down, the last rose petals ripped from the rose (signifying the waning hours of the beast's chance to be human again) I thought about the last two weeks in our community. I thought about seven people gone forever, and about how we make sure that their loss is not only never forgotten but leads to change that can positively impact the lives of others. I thought about an arts community struggling with recent news of program cuts and job losses, and about how the arts will still thrive, even in places like junior high schools, but how we need to foster them, encourage them, and ensure that they are not forgotten, either. I thought about how communities go through times of crisis and trauma, and how they pull together, too, at protest rallies and on "save the arts" Facebook pages, and at junior high schools when parents and siblings and families and friends gather to see a lovely little musical production from a talented group of students. I thought about hope even in times of darkness, and about finding community. And I realized that even in the darkest of times, even when things seem rather bleak, even when it has lost some petals, the rose continues to bloom, and life in our community goes on.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Baseballs, Opening Pitches, and Little Hands

There are things I have found myself doing over the course of writing this blog that I never imagined. Many of those have been new experiences or new opportunities, things that I never even really thought much about. And some are so unexpected and yet end up being so profound that it takes me some time to process them. This one falls into this last category, as this week I was asked to throw out an opening pitch at the season opener for the Fort McMurray Minor Baseball Association - and it was anything but a simple baseball pitch for so many reasons, people.

Paul McWilliams, chair of the board for the FMMBA, contacted me late last week and asked if I would throw out a pitch on opening night. Why did he ask me? Well, this time they wanted to throw out not one opening pitch, but eight. Eight pitches, all being thrown in memory of the seven people and one unborn baby killed in the tragedy on the 63 ( I always feel like I should capitalize that into "The Tragedy On The 63" because that is how it feels to me, in capitals). He asked Mayor Blake, and our new MLA-elects. He asked the organizers from the protest rally, someone from the Justin Slade Youth Foundation board, an employee from Diversified, a pastor from a local church - and me, the blogger who wrote an open letter that went places she never expected.

I said yes when Paul asked, because I was genuinely honoured, and touched. When he explained the reasoning - how they have 42 teams of kids, and how so many of those kids travel on the 63 to attend tournaments, and how kids from other teams travel here to attend - how could I say no? I suppose I could have said no due to my complete lack of athletic ability (you have no idea, people, I can hurt myself climbing my own stairs), but I was honoured to be asked at all, and to be included in such fine company.

That's how I found myself practicing tossing a tennis ball on Monday afternoon with the older Intrepid Junior Blogger. Yes, a tennis ball, we don't own baseballs or softballs. After enough attempts to make my arm sore she suggested I wear a short skirt and heels to the opener, expressing her belief that only distracting the crowd would save me from embarrassment that night. I laughed, of course, being no stranger to public embarrassment, and then promptly banned her and the rest of my family from attending so at least there would be no photos to haunt me on Facebook.

Monday night I headed down to the baseball fields behind Westwood High School - and found it bustling with activity. Sport in this community is huge, as most of us know, but I had no idea baseball was this big, 42 teams big, from tiny little guys and gals to those who are in their teen years. As I wandered around the field I saw families - moms and dads and kids.

I didn't even really have time to get very nervous. I chatted with the other "dignitaries" tossing the first pitch -  that's what the paper called us the next day, and I was bemused as while I have been called many names "dignitary" has never been one of them - and we talked about the opener and the teams and the kids...and about The Tragedy On The 63, of course. Because that is why we were there, to commemorate those lost so recently.

As the teams paraded out onto the field in the "Parade of Champions" I smiled at the kids, seeing them so excited and nervous at the same time. I stepped out of the dugout where we were waiting to snap a couple of photos (and discovering to my horror that one of my best friends had appeared to take photos and videos, escaping the banishment I placed upon my family). I watched the kids and the teams, and I looked up into the crowd of parents and sibling and family members, and while it was a wonderful moment it was crushing, too. It was crushing because I kept thinking of one little boy who would never play baseball, one little girl who would never be on a team like this, one little boy who would never again play catch with his dad or mom, and the life of one child that ended before it began.

When my name was called and I was introduced I stepped out onto the field and joined the others. I was humbled to be in their company, really, people I have come to respect so much, and to admire. There were some speeches, and a lovely prayer, and then there was the opening pitch, all eight of us pitching our balls at the same time, eight catchers all lined up. My toss was high and wide and wild, of course, and my poor catcher had to run to retrieve it (my friend captured video he referred to as "maiming the dirt").

There was laughter, and handshakes, and smiles. There were some gentle conversations afterward, and the baseball season had been opened. The teams filed out, kids from their teen years right down to the very little guys you can't help but smile at when you see them in their tiny little jerseys.

And at the end there was me walking back to my car in a grey baseball jersey and carrying a small white baseball with dirt ground into it. There was me climbing into my car and staring at that baseball, finally putting it on the seat beside me as I drove and thought about little hands that would never clutch a baseball. I thought about little hands that would never hold the hand of their mother and father again, and I thought about little hands that would never do anything again. I got home and placed that baseball on my kitchen island where it still is today, and every time I see it I think about tiny little hands, some gone forever and some forever changed in a fraction of a second on highway in northern Alberta. And then I go and hold my daughter's hand, that little hand that I have held from the moment she was born and I hope to hold until the day I die. And I think about all the little hands I saw Monday night, those hands that will play baseball this season, and all the other little hands in this city. And then I remember why The Tragedy On The 63 must never be forgotten, and why it must lead to change - so no more little hands are forever gone.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Making the Grade - Keyano College and the Arts

Part of writing this blog sometimes is knowing what issues to tackle, and when. I often find myself playing monkey in the middle, having both sides of an issue speaking to me and hoping I will see their side. And usually I do see both sides, but being human I cannot deny I usually take a stance and have an opinion - that's really the joy of being a blogger, not a journalist. This has been the case this weekend as I pondered the recent programming cuts/changes at Keyano College, cuts and changes that affected the college, the arts in Wood Buffalo, the community - and some personal friends, too.

You see I have friends on both sides of this issue - friends in administration, who work at Keyano, and friends who just saw their lives changed when their employment at the college ended on Friday. I have looked at both sides - the college side that says enrolment numbers aren't high enough to sustain these programs, the lack of funding, and the need to focus on where the enrolment is, and the other side, the arts side that says these programs could have been changed and not eliminated, that this was not the right direction for the college to go, and that this is heading the college down the path to being exclusively a trades and technical institute. And you know what? Both sides have a point. They are both right to an extent, and as it usually is no one side is completely right and the other completely wrong. So, I'm not going to write about that aspect. I'm going to write about the impact on the community, which is my true focus in this blog - and the impact on my friends and the others let go on Friday, because that is where my true discomfort with this whole scenario lies.

So, first to the community impact. Cuts to arts programming will hurt the community. As my New Zealand friend says "full stop". There is no possible way to deny that this will impact the community, and there is no way to see it in a positive light, I'm afraid. Students leaving the local high schools hoping to study certain aspects of the arts will no longer be able to do so here and will instead have to leave our community for other places. That is, in my opinion, a loss regardless of how you slice it.

It also becomes a bit tougher to sell this community as a burgeoning centre of arts and culture when we see these kinds of cuts. I've started to be seen as a promoter of Fort McMurray and one of the things I really and truly like to promote is our arts and culture scene, which I happen to think is vibrant and energetic and amazing. And it will continue to be, of course, but these programming cuts will have an effect on that vibrancy and energy, and it will have an impact. I can no longer point to these programs as an example of our commitment to the arts in this community, and that is a loss, no matter how we try to dress it up and make it dance. While I understand the reasoning behind the loss of these programs it doesn't mean I don't also see the impact and feel saddened by it - and I do.

This second part is a bit tougher, and a bit darker for me, because I am deeply troubled by it. This is a small community in many respects, one of over 100,000 people but still tight-knit and close. The arts community is even smaller, with roots that run deep and strong. I think everyone knew cuts were coming at Keyano, but even those who lost their jobs had no idea it was going to be on Friday, I suspect. And I think they truly didn't expect it to occur in the manner that it did - when they, employees of a community college, some of whom had worked there for DECADES, were given 15 minutes to clean out their offices and escorted out, in some cases by security. I was stunned by that revelation, people. That is typically the treatment given to executives in industry when their employers don't want to see them taking proprietary documents or information. That is typically the treatment given to someone who has been fired for cause, because they have performed their job poorly or not at all. That is NOT the treatment I would expect for instructors at a community college who have spent years - in some cases 22 years! - educating our youth. It is NOT the treatment I would expect for individuals who have garnered tremendous respect in our arts community - and in the wider community, too. I will tell you this right now - regardless of the reasoning for the programming cuts, regardless for the change in focus at the college - I think this treatment of long-time, devoted, and respected instructors is deplorable, and it has harmed my respect for the college. I have had a good relationship with Keyano College, and as I said I have many friends who continue to work there - and I sincerely hope those friends are never on the receiving end of this sort of treatment from their employer after years of dedicated service. I won't deny it - I am deeply, deeply disappointed that the college would choose to treat their employees in this manner when it could have been done in a far gentler and more respectful manner as befits those individuals who were let go - individuals who were not trouble makers or slackers or embezzlers but rather respected teachers and community leaders. Perhaps that is where my deepest issue with all of this lies, really - not the cuts to programming, and not the the community impact, but rather the impact on almost twenty people who were given 15 minutes to clean out decades of life in their offices, and then shoved out the door.

So, there it is, people. I'm guessing this post won't please everyone, and it may not please anyone. The problem with seeing both sides is that it becomes hard to take a side, as you want to be fair. I see both sides, and I see that they both have points and a lot at stake. I see the impact on the community, and it is detrimental, so let's not pretend it isn't. And in the end I saw first hand the effect on a dear friend who was unceremoniously booted from their place of employment, and it saddened - and angered - me. Agree with the cuts, or not. Agree with a new focus and direction for arts at Keyano, or not. But treat people with the respect and dignity they deserve, especially when they have dedicated their professional lives to your institution. And in that class, Keyano College, I give you a failing grade.

Several others have written about the recent cuts
at Keyano College, and I include these links 
so you can read further and learn more: